You may have seen recent reports that London’s Oxford Street has the greatest density of Wi-Fi in Europe - with a quarter of that being complimentary - and almost a third of Wi-Fi hotspots in the US are free.
The public Wi-Fi landscape in Australia is comparatively barren, with connectivity provided by libraries and a few other public sites, and “Pri-Fi” (commercially-provided Wi-Fi) of variable quality and capacity available in some shopping centres and cafes.
The lack of Wi-Fi infrastructure in Australian cities stands in stark contrast with the uptake of smartphones by Australian consumers. As Google reported this year, almost two thirds of Australians now own internet-enabled smartphones.
Local councils have taken few initiatives in this area, sticking to their traditional role of providing physical infrastructure such as community facilities and local roads.
Outside the home, users’ connectivity options are mostly restricted to commercially-provided 3G and 4G networks.
Comparing mobile data charges across comparable countries is notoriously difficult, but there is some evidence that a steady cost decline over the past decade and a half has levelled out or begun to reverse in Australia.
Why should we be thinking of supplementing commercial networks with public Wi-Fi? A range of rationales are put forward, from equity considerations (enabling universal access to online public services and economic opportunities), to promoting business innovation and civic vitality, to encouraging residents to assist with urban management.
And in one sense, the provision of public Wi-Fi by local councils is a natural extension of their existing responsibility for public internet provision, through the municipal public library network.
Home and away
Australians are highly mobile in another sense, too. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that almost seven million overseas trips are made each year by Australian residents.
An increasing number of Australians, then, are becoming accustomed to the utility and economy of public Wi-Fi elsewhere. These factors are driving expectations that Australian city governments should provide Wi-Fi as part of the basic urban infrastructure.
And as the 2012 Victorian local government elections showed, aspiring councillors have begun to take notice, with urban Wi-Fi included in the clutch of campaign promises last year.
The announcement this year of plans by (at last count) four Australian city governments - Adelaide, Parramatta, Wollongong, Melbourne - to roll out public Wi-Fi, though, suggests we may at last be catching up with the rest of the world.
Public transport authorities in several parts of the country, too, are following overseas examples by providing free Wi-Fi, on board and around transit stations. Darwin and Brisbane are two examples.
Internationally, municipal governments nominate several rationales for public Wi-Fi provision, including economic and civic participation, community service provision, social inclusion and urban management. Examples of robust evaluation of local public Wi-Fi, though, are difficult to find in the literature.
Why not Australia, then?
Why does Australia compare so poorly with other countries in this area, particularly given our highly urbanised population?
Our demographic and spatial patterns are a major reason for the lag, along with the structure of Australian government. Australia’s vast distances and relatively small and unevenly distributed population have long posed challenges for infrastructure provision in telecommunications, utilities and transport.
National and state governments have characteristically stepped in to overcome market failure and promote equity between cities and the bush.
This role was supported for much of the history of Australian government by a broad consensus in favour of state intervention and the benefits of owning public assets.
Deregulation and public divestment of telecommunications in the late 20th century yielded mixed results, and, as many commentators have noted, the Australian government’s decision to build the National Broadband Network (NBN) reflects a return to earlier thinking.
Correspondingly, local government jurisdictions in Australia are comparatively “weak” and highly uneven in their size and capacities. Australian local governments have limited fiscal powers and responsibilities for public service provision, especially public utilities.
Internationally, local utility companies – with adaptable infrastructure and business processes – have been in the vanguard of local broadband network provision.
The move of municipal governments into network building and fixed line and Wi-Fi broadband provision, though, has been controversial on several continents.
Lobbied heavily by incumbent telcos, a number of US state governments from Arkansas to Wisconsin have passed legislation to limit the activities of city authorities in this area.
The wave of public Wi-Fi development in US cities, flowing from the uptake of the 802.11x Wi-Fi protocols (the international wireless local area network standard) by computer manufacturers, produced some successful and sustainable ventures, but also business failures and resident opposition.
Pro-market enthusiasts interpreted the troubles as symptomatic of the underlying failure of public broadband. Innovation specialists advance a more sophisticated interpretation in arguing a role for the “experimental state” in this period of fundamental economic transformation driven by digital technologies.
Similar regulatory and legislative action has occurred across Europe. In 2012 the privatised state corporation British Telecom and its major competitor Virgin Media took legal action against the City of Birmingham to thwart its proposed investment in a local fibre network.
The network was a key element in the city’s plans to regenerate declining inner urban areas, as well as a response to concerns over the persistence of under-serviced areas in the UK’s second largest city.
Rules and regulations
None of the Australian councils currently contemplating public Wi-Fi have proposed following the entrepreneurial path of several US city governments and setting up as commercial broadband providers.
The City of Burnie, Tasmania, remains the exception in the Australian municipal broadband landscape, having spun a commercial internet service provider (ISP) off its own pioneering fibre and wireless network developments in 2007.
The regulatory and legal uncertainties around public provision are probably sufficient to deter many city authorities.
Perhaps foremost here is awareness that the purchase price of the licensed spectrum in which mobile phone companies operate is so high that neither the telcos nor Australian government would tolerate competition from a public agency.
The cost of service provision is also a significant issue for cash-strapped local authorities.
A paper launched earlier this month on Wi-Fi in public places produced by the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES) revealed that the costs of existing Australian ventures ranges from A$6,000 to A$2 million.
The City of Geelong’s refusal to release the cost of public Wi-Fi provision in its waterfront precinct points to the sensitivity of this issue.
But recent developments in commercial mobile service provision suggest that the rivalrous relationship between public and private is being reconsidered.
In several parts of the globe, communication infrastructure companies are subsidising the construction of public Wi-Fi networks by city governments so that data services can be offloaded from increasingly congested commercial networks, giving priority to voice services.
So, if you can’t get a satisfactory mobile signal in Martin Place or Collins Street during peak hour, perhaps you should lobby the Sydney or Melbourne city councils, as well as your mobile phone provider.